A federal judge has temporarily blocked new restrictions on abortion providers that receive federal family planning funds, including one in Maine.

The rule from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department would prohibit family planning clinics that receive federal Title X funds from making abortion referrals – what critics are calling a “gag rule.” Those clinics would also be barred from providing abortion services in the same buildings where they provide other health services such as cancer and STD screening, a requirement that would increase costs for many providers.

The proposed rule prompted lawsuits across the country. In March, Maine Family Planning and the global Center for Reproductive Rights filed its complaint against the federal government in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The plaintiffs argue that the rule violates the constitutional rights of women and medical professionals, and that it was adopted without the justification required under the law. They said the expense associated with the new rule would force Maine Family Planning to stop offering abortion services at all but one of its family planning clinics in the state. Under that scenario, Mainers would have only three publicly accessible locations for abortion care across the state: the flagship Maine Family Planning Clinic in Augusta, the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor and the Planned Parenthood location in Portland.

Later in March, they also filed a motion for preliminary injunction, which asked a judge to stop the rule from taking effect in May as planned. Then U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian granted a similar motion Thursday in response to lawsuits from the state of Washington and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. His sweeping order barred the Trump administration from implementing the rule anywhere in the country while the legal challenges are pending.

With that decision, Maine Family Planning withdrew its motion, saying it was no longer necessary. But the organization pledged in a statement to keep fighting the new rule.

“MFP is relieved that the Domestic Gag Rule has been temporarily blocked,” Maine Family Planning President and CEO George Hill said. “Along with our Title X allies nationwide, we’re breathing a sigh of relief today, knowing our robust network can continue to provide high quality, affordable, and evidence-based reproductive health care as it has done for almost 50 years.

“The Gag Rule threatens access to essential health care services for low-income and rural Mainers, and that’s why we’re battling it in court – for our patients and our neighbors. Our fight continues.”

The Title X program serves about 4 million people annually. The grants fund family planning services like contraception and STD screening to low-income individuals for free or at low cost. In 2017, the most recent year data is available, the program administered more than $280 million in federal grants to clinics. Federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions in most circumstances, so Title X grants do not pay for those services.

Maine Family Planning receives $2 million annually in Title X funding. The agency operates its 18 clinics and shares the federal funds with 29 other health centers across Maine. Attorneys from the Center for Reproductive Rights said last month that they chose to mount a legal challenge in U.S. District Court in Portland because Maine Family Planning is the sole grantee in the largely rural state, and low-income patients here have few other options for those services.

A spokeswoman said Maine Family Planning provides about 500 abortions each year.

Still, anti-abortion activists have argued that organizations with any connection to abortion should not receive federal funds at all. A Department of Health and Human Services news release announcing the new rule in March said it will “provide needed clarity” for the public and for clinics about what is allowed and not allowed by law.

“The final rule ensures compliance with statutory program integrity provisions governing the program and, in particular, the statutory prohibition on funding programs where abortion is a method of family planning,” the release stated.

It was not clear Friday what the next event will be in the Maine Family Planning lawsuit.

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
[email protected]
Twitter: mainemegan

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